Great Moments in Local History
Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve endeavored to be a historical activist. It’s why I lead Cemetery Walks and Local History Tours, among other things. Chalk it up to passion, if you like, but it’s really more than that. It’s that local history is important. How, you may ask?
History is the story of where we come from, and as Laura Ingalls Wilder (among many, many others) believed, if you want to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve come from. And so it is that we study history in school. World history, because it tells us where we come from as a civilization; National history, because it tells us where we come from as a people. But there is a third type of history that is at least equally as important as what is studied in school.
That is Local history, which teaches us where we come from as a community (and often as individuals), as well as how we fit into the larger pictures of World and National history. For example, nearly every city and town in New England has a statue of a Civil War soldier. Most are stone, some are bronze. There’s at least one (Oak Bluff on Martha’s Vineyard) that’s painted. All of these statues commemorate the local boys who went off to fight in the Civil War, a significant event in National history. But if you dig a little deeper, some odd tidbits turn up:
At Oak Bluff, the uniform of the Civil War soldier is painted gray, instead of blue. Here in North Adams, the first unit of soldiers recruited (there were two) voted unanimously to name themselves the “Johnson Grays,” after the local industrialist Sylvander Johnson. Okay, but why the “Grays?” In North Adams, it's because the tailor who made the uniforms--for no adequately explored reason--made them in Cadet Gray. In Oak Bluffs, it's even stranger. The good folk there decided to honor the men who fought on both sides! This isn’t taught in school. It takes a local connection to tap into things like this.
Another important point is that history is primarily about people: Individuals and groups of individuals who made a difference, alone or collectively. History, as it’s taught in school concentrates on big names and big events. Local history often concentrates on common citizens and local businesses, weaving in and out of larger trends.
To stay with the subject of the Civil War, we’ve all studied the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac, the two first iron-clad warships. But here in North Adams, we have a strong tradition that says that some of the iron used to armor-plate the Monitor was smelted here at the North Adams Iron Company. We sent two units of soldiers to fight in the war, as well as the 10th Regiment’s first Regimental Band. One member of the Johnson Grays (later, the Johnson Guard) was in the Massachusetts Color Guard at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, making him an eyewitness to President Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address. He delivered the same Address on Memorial Day here in North Adams in 1906. And speaking of President Lincoln, it was a North Adams man whose machinations at the Republican National Convention led to Lincoln’s nomination for that office.
All this comes from a study of Local History. These are stories that transcend mere interest; they fill an essential gap in how we educate our children about their world, their nation, and their communities. Because communities are important, too. Consider this: Before you have any notion of what it means to be an American, or what it means to be part of western civilization, you are part of a community. The story of that community is your own story. It’s where you come from.
This is why I endeavor to be a historical activist. It’s also why I say in my press releases that local history is interesting to adults, but essential to children. They need to hear these stories. With that in mind, I invite you to dip into my treasury of North Adams history.
While I can’t promise you that I’ll avoid stupid jokes (as if I ever could!), I can---and do---promise you that what I write here will always be as true and accurate as I am able to make it. All I ask in return is that you share these with your children and grandchildren, especially if you (and/or they) are from North Adams. If you (and/or they) are not from North Adams, teach them their own local history. It’s not necessarily difficult to research, and believe me, they need to hear about it.
A Breath of Fresh Air Requiem for an Insult A Fatal Accident I Love a Parade!
A Celebration of Women Two Rainy Days A Red Letter Day The Meeting House
Show Time! Miracle Cure Can I Go Out and Play? A Grave Situation
The Fish Pond Terms of Obsolescence Incident at Union Depot Adopted Son
How to Become Invisible Famous Visitors Food Matters Company Town
Open Wide! Soap Opera Lives An Explosive Story The Civil War Main Street
Oral History Game Center Street What I Did on My Summer Vacation
Hill Side Cemetery Veazie Street Our Mother on the Hill Southview Cemetery
Fort Massachusetts Oddities Our City Seal The Poet Mom & Pops
Our Neighbors Hoosac Tunnel Our First The River